I hope that for those of you who have been following my blog posts, I have started to break down some barriers that have held you back from really implementing popular music in your orchestra system. I have alluded to this several times, but it’s my hope that teachers do more than just simply play an arrangement of the latest top 40 hit. I’m hoping to give students experiences with popular music so they can improvise, play on electric instruments, read a rock chart, learn practical ways to use music theory, arrange music, and become better and more inspired musicians. Up until this point I have been focusing on the big picture. This post is me showing the world the application of my big picture ideas. My true hope is that what I am about to do can be replicated by orchestra teachers across the country . My new venture and application for my philosophy is to start one of the first rock orchestras within the public school systems.
I have thought about how band and choir programs are a little ahead of the curve in regards to popular music in the classroom. They have found a way to implement it into their curriculum. For a long time now, band programs have included jazz band, pep bands, and marching band. Choir programs have included show choirs, glee clubs, and musicals. Orchestras do not have the same tradition. I have seen some fiddle groups, strolling strings groups, and mariachi ensembles, but it’s not very common, and some of these ensembles don’t have a huge draw among the students. The Mariachi outfits don’t necessarily scream cool to me. You certainly will find pockets of orchestra teachers finding ways of putting popular music into their programs, but from what I see a lot of this is not very effective, nor is it all that educational. Before I go ahead and turn people off by upsetting everyone, I have thought the same thing with myself. I have changed that over the years and have found some great educational ways of having rock music be in the orchestra classroom. To also be fair to others, I have seen some teachers do this extremely well and hope to get these teachers to do a guest blog in the future. Anyways, the point of all of this is to talk about my new rock orchestra. This new ensemble is going to the biggest leap yet into implementing my vision with rock music in the orchestra classroom. I’m sure there will be quite a large learning curve that will be associated with it and I’m going to bring you along for that ride.
My hope is that I can use this blog at times as a means of documenting my growth with this ensemble and that it will be a good reflecting tool as well as hopefully a resource to other teachers thinking about doing the same thing. I also hope that my readers can discuss their thoughts and also give me some great ideas to make it more successful for these students.
Let me get started into my initial brainstorming ideas to give you a sense of what this ensemble will look like a little more. The first thing you will need to know is that this ensemble will have weekly rehearsals before school. I’m thinking we will try to have 8 violins, 4 violas, 4 cellos, and a bass (preferably electric bass). We will then need to have a few extra instruments to give it the necessary rock flare. We will for sure need drums, which will create a huge problem with balance. I’m also hoping to add an electric guitar player and a keyboard player if I can find them. I also think that I could get some vocalists as well when it would make sense, but I would want much of the music to be strictly instrumental. It wouldn’t be a requirement for the students to have electric instruments but it would be heavily encouraged. In the long term it would be great to at least have enough school owned electric instruments for a string quartet.
I want to have a quick aside when it comes to the drums. I mentioned that this will have a huge balance problem. The drums will easily overpower the rest of the instruments, especially if I’m dealing with mostly acoustic string instruments. My initial response to fix this is to buy an electric drum kit and buy a cajon which is a box drum that has all the features of a drum kit without the huge volume. I will agree that an electric kit is a bit cheesy for my tastes and a lot of drummers wouldn’t be within a 10 foot radius of an electric kit, but I think it’s the best solution for what I hope the ensemble to sound like. It gives me the control I would need to balance the drums to the orchestra. The other positive is storing an electric kit is pretty convenient compared to a full drum kit. I’m hoping the money solution will work itself out via some fundraising, as this will cost us quite a bit of money. When I make these purchases I will write a quick blog with what I purchased and why.
I want to discuss the bigger hopes of the ensemble. I’m really hoping that this ensemble would be a stepping stone for these musicians to find themselves in their own bands. We will have music written out for most of the songs, but much of what we will learn will be getting away from sheet music. My hope is that what I teach them through the course of the year will give them the courage to venture out on a musical road that isn’t strictly classical. We are going to talk in much detail about improvising, music theory, electronics, arranging, and what being in a rock band looks like behind the scenes. We will culminate our year with an epic rock concert filled with a huge sound system, lights, fog machines, and hopefully some special guests. The other big hope is to even work on a tour with this group in the future years to get students the opportunity of touring with a rock band.
Let me get a little more philosophical and bring us back to the big picture with one of the biggest problems with the string world as I see it. When I have more time I hope to give an entire blog post to this topic, but I’ll give you the cliff’s notes version. We have for too long told and showed students “The Pathway” of the string world. There is this very specific road for a string player to take. This pathway looks something like this: go to college, practice 8 hours a day, play in the orchestra, do your recitals, get your degree, get your masters, audition for orchestras, and finally hope that you are one of the lucky ones that makes it into an orchestra. Then after you do all this work and make it into the orchestra, hope that your orchestra doesn’t go on strike or go bankrupt, because that’s happening all around the country. Let me be clear that this path is not a bad path (even though I spun it so negatively). In fact, my life was on this pathway and I loved it. However, I feel that showing students that this is the only path is a huge problem. Out of the hundreds of students you have each year you might come across one student per year that has a chance of being successful in following this path. In a good year, maybe two. So my point is this: why are we forcing down kids throats this guide to success in string playing that 99% of our students can’t follow? Why would we tempt students with this apple that can never be reached by the average high school student?
I truly want my goal to be to give students the ability to keep playing long after they graduate high school. Isn’t one of the goals in education to create life-long learners? It’s always sad to hear that seniors have no plans to continue with their instruments after they leave high school. It’s even sadder when they come back and visit and I ask if they have been keeping up with playing their instrument and they tell me they haven’t touched their instrument since their last high school concert. There will be some students who do find outlets and those students make me very happy. Some students will stay on their classical path and join a campus orchestra, or a community orchestra, or form a string quartet. This isn’t a bad thing. However, I feel that giving students the ability to play in a rock band can be a tool that meets my goal of keeping more students playing after high school in sometimes a more effective way than even a community orchestra can. How many local bands would love to have a violin player? How many churches need more musicians in their worship team? In my town there are hundreds of bands playing all over the city while there are probably less than ten community orchestras. Teachers all across the country are missing a great opportunity to teach students skills that will keep them playing past high school. This is a win-win situation for our students. I’m not saying that I will get every student to join a rock band during and after their high school career, but if I can get a handful of people to continue playing after high school because of them being in my rock orchestra I will consider it a huge success.
As I stated, one of my goals with this group and this blog is to create an ensemble that can be recreated by teachers across the country. I would want you to be able to do this ensemble whether you have any experience or not. Over the course of the year I hope to create more blog posts to educate others and even have some educational videos that I will post on YouTube. Please let me know in the comments what would be the biggest deterrent from replicating this ensemble for you? This will help me know what resources I would need to create for other teachers.